Friday, January 23, 2015

Modernism Word of the Day; 21 -30


From NY to LA to Miami Beach. Armed with concrete, steel and lots and lots of glass modernist architects are sucking at the golden teats of the nouveau riche who are on the scene. Nothing like their stuffy predecessors with their "privacy issues"; they've got it, they're flaunting it, they're letting us all know how the young emperors live it up.


As a follow up on the previous post of architectural voyeurism, the new "Standard" in swank, swinger, modernist hotels is a curtain wall of ultra-transparent, low glare glass.

The question has to be asked though: Should neighbors and their children be forced to watch maids make up the beds as at lower left, all in the name of progress?


The suburban and urban infill 2.0: mixed-use, hikable, bikable, occasionally even likable.

However, admittedly agnostic to style, atheistic to craft the "New" Urbanism is a 20th century theoretical ideology of imposing an highly engineered, eutopic master plan from a centralized authority. The rapid developments of New Urbanism bear scant resemblance to traditional town planning developed generationally by members of a local community.



With the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe project in 1972 Modernism was pronounced dead. The citizenry had risen up and rejected it for sure; however, if they thought any of their local architectural traditions would be revived they were in for a nasty surprise. The next generation of architects would replace Modernism with a caricature of culture. Irony, Parody and the Bold Statement were the buzzwords and the public became the butt of the joke.

Like that Chippendale piece? We’ll make a skyscraper out of it. Ha, ha, ha!

So you dig Classical architecture? We’ll distort every element and make it out of anodized aluminum…in mauve!
Oh God…I can’t breathe…you dumb bastards…Ha, ha, ha!


The triumph of raw concrete, the celebration of ugliness. Brutalism reigned supreme in the 60’s and 70’s as the harsh standard of civic architecture among government buildings, institutions of higher learning and medical facilities such as this Scottish Mental Hospital where I’m certain customer retention is high.

Modernize the man by modernizing his environment. The pure "machine for living" would be set free by employing the Five Points of Modern Architecture:

PILOTIS - Supporting walls replaced by a grid of reinforced concrete posts

Free Plan - No supporting walls allow for the open floor plan

Free Façade - With no structural role the façade likewise is set free

Horizontal Window - Cut across the entire length of the elevations, equality of light for all of the interior

Roof Garden - The fulcrum of balance between mechanization and nature

Oh yeah, its a thing.
Selfridges' Birmingham department store is unique in that the building is able to 'consume' the consumers via the car park entry feeder tube. I’m not sure but I really think the building is still growing.

Just one more item of passing related interest, the architect claimed his design was meant to ‘evoke the female silhouette’.


Austerity and rays of light in space. The 'Less is More' maxim leads architecture to its logical conclusion, its purest from, namely the elimination of anything that may appeal to the senses: ornament, color, texture, nature, human beings.


Fragmentation, chaos, dislocation, disorder...the physical manifestation of the impossibility of intrinsic meaning. The highest expressions are over-sized and placed in the midst of traditional town planning settings for greatest disruptive impact that extends far beyond the building itself.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Architectural Word of the Day; 121 - 130


Coming directly from the Italian 'bel' meaning 'beautiful' and 'vedere' meaning 'to see', the belvedere is typically a rooftop pavilion offering a lovely vista. This church has two...the view must be twice as nice.


The Greeks utilized the word "akros" (ἄκρος), meaning "highest or at the extremity" to refer to the small pedestal upon which sculpted figures of ornament were placed upon the apex and corners of the roof.

Since that time the meaning has been extended to included the ornament itself even without the pedestal as in this example.


Of ancient Persian origin, they were adopted by the Greeks, Romans and have since been a regular feature of Western garden design.
Effective designs are constructed in a way to suppress wave movement and of course have something lovely to reflect.


A small window or louver projecting from a sloping roof surmounted by its own gable. The vertical sides of the dormer are called 'cheeks'.

The etymology comes directly from the French 'dormir', to sleep. So it was thought of as the window of a sleeping room, since the attic spaces of houses were typically bedrooms.


A colonnaded, sheltered porch that is detached from the main façade.

The portico often provides the first gesture of hospitality as well as transition from the public life of the street to the most intimate spaces of the home.


The vertical, enclosed area at the end of a sloping roof, defined by raking cornices running up from the eaves to the ridge. It is often triangular resembling the formal, classical pediment.


The plain Jane, country cousin of the pineapple or pinecone. The poor dear lacks sophistication and enrichment and as a result doesn't often get invited to the party...always stuck sitting on the gate post.


The semi-circular masonry arch, not a Roman invention but one they made widespread use of. Each of the stones or "voussoirs" are wedge shaped to distribute the load, transferring it to the ground via the impost, the top course of the masonry water table serving that function in this example.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Federal and Beaux Arts

Plaster eagle, Monticello
The founding fathers of the United States lived and were educated during an era later known as the Age of Enlightenment. It was a period espousing values such as reason, individual merit and greater liberty in philosophical inquiry as legitimate bases for authority. A measure of that inquiry harkened back to the days of Classical Greece, an age of prosperity and high culture. The democratic city-state of Athens harbored schools of philosophy led by the great minds of men such as Plato and Aristotle. Another significant influence was the ancient Republic of Rome. Its representative form of government was to largely serve as a referential blueprint for the political structure of the emerging nation.

A Federal Style

Perhaps no other single figure embodied the ideals and values of the new American Republic as that of Thomas Jefferson. A gentleman architect himself, Jefferson would lead the way in establishing a national style of civic architecture for the now federated states of the former British colonies. Jefferson held the works of Palladio in particular high esteem, seeing them as of direct lineage from the Roman Republic. Political connotations were thus to be embedded in Federal architecture. Likewise symbolic meaning was an important component in conveying values and plaster was an excelling medium of expression in architecture. For example, in 1782 the bald eagle was chosen as the preeminent emblem of the new republic. The eagle symbolized qualities such as long life and majesty; however, its ability to soar above conveyed the most treasured value of liberty. Jefferson's own commission of a modeled plaster eagle at Monticello in 1812 featured 18 plaster stars, coinciding with Louisiana's admission as the 18th state.

"Justice", Old Supreme Court chamber
Close colleagues of Jefferson were the "Father of American Architecture", Benjamin Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch, widely considered the first native born American born to practice architecture professionally. Latrobe initially designed the Supreme Court chamber of the Capitol with its domical, ribbed plaster vaulting whereas Bulfinch led its restoration and elaboration after damage suffered to the Capitol building during the War of 1812.  Commissioned to Carlos Franzoni in 1817 was the plaster relief sculpture "Justice". Rich in iconographical meaning, Justice, the most important of the four cardinal virtues, is personified in the figure of a classical maiden. Her scales represent impartiality, her sword signifies her authority. The owl at her side represents the very embodiment of Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom whilst to the right the eagle as symbol of the republic surmounts the books of law. Finally, to the left a winged "genius" presides over the Constitution under a sunburst halo symbolic of truth.

One of the greatest civic spaces ever conceived and a national treasure is the Capitol Rotunda. The cupola was designed by architect Thomas U. Walker and completed in 1863. The crowning feature filling the oculus is the "Apotheosis of Washington" added in 1865. This enormous work, 65 feet in diameter, was realized in plaster, painted al fresco by Constantino Brumidi over the course of 11 months. The fresco quite literally represents the deification of George Washington. Ascending with him at either side are the Roman goddesses Victory and Liberty. In turn, he is surrounded by the Roman gods Minerva, Neptune, Mercury, Vulcan and Ceres symbolizing Science, Maritime Power, Commerce, Industry and Agriculture respectively. Of particular interest is the American goddess Columbia, the personification of both Freedom and War.

Vulcan depicted as a symbol of Industry

L'École des Beaux-Arts

The Breakers, Newport RI
In the 1840's a young American living in Paris, aspiring architect Richard Morris Hunt, was the first American to be admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts. The École was the most prestigious school of art, sculpture and architecture in the world offering a rigorous study extending from Classical Greece, Imperial Rome through the Italian Renaissance and the French Baroque. After the Civil War, Hunt began designing one mansion after another for wealthy industrialists of the burgeoning Gilded Age. His most opulent commissions came from his primary patron, the Vanderbilt family. Hunt was to inspire and soon be followed by scores of architects practicing in the US: the firms of Carrère and Hastings as well as McKim, Mead and White provide prominent examples. Lavish ornamentation was characteristic of Beaux Arts architecture and plaster was routinely specified.

Foreign architects were also active in the US. Beaux Arts trained French architect Ernest Sanson was engaged for two prominent American commissions: the Perry Belmont Mansion in DC and notably the Carolands Chateau south of San Fransisco. The Carolands is immense with an inner volume of over 1 million cubic feet. Both properties introduced to the US the French plaster tradition of Stuc Pierre, an integrated colored and aggregated gypsum lime plaster in emulation of limestone.

Carolands Chateau

Well this concludes my series on Plaster History. Personally, it has been both educational and enjoyable to explore the richness of the trade and all of the beautiful works folks just like us have created. I look forward to writing upcoming articles concerning what is happening in the trade today in both education and practice.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Modernism Word of the Day; 11 -20


As we commence our march through the "isms", I thought you all might benefit from an explanation. The etymological root of 'modern' comes from a Latin root meaning 'just now' whereas '-ism' comes directly from Greek and originally was only used as a suffix for words of Greek origin. In the 20th century the use of -ism expanded to form names of ideologies expressing belief in the superiority of their class or pattern of behavior by said group members.

Modernism at its essence is the cult of the 'just now', ever changing fashion as an ideological system of belief that condescends anything that comes before.


The early 20th century art movement analyzed, disassembled then reassembled objects is an abstracted form in an effort to provide multiple simultaneous viewpoints. Supposedly, Le Corbusier's Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp attempts to do this as a Cubist representation of the Parthenon and Acropolis, the church as a Cubist ruin. Oddly, his interpretation results, in the opinion of many, to an unmistakably vaginal form.


The credo "form must ever follow function" quoted from Louis Sullivan was taken as divine inspiration for a movement that held up function as the leading principle of design; initially as an exploration of its meaning. It quickly focused on the elimination of ornament, ostensibly to remove any distraction from the practical purpose of the building, leading the movement into function as an aesthetic ideal. 

Essentially, bald is beautiful.


Rising to prominence in the years following World War I, the futurist aesthetic was all about dynamism as expressed through long, unbroken lines conveying motion and speed as well as the glorification of technology.


Modernism's return to the Classical...sort of. The theory goes that the underlying forms of the Classical had been lost in all the enrichment and decoration, essentially making the work transparent. Stripping the structure bare, the architectonic essence would be freed and we could relish in the opacity of pure geometry.


An early Soviet architectural movement which focused on a hard geometric aspect by means of factory, industrialized production utilizing the properties of modern materials, particularly glass and steel.

The Narkomfin housing project was one of the first to feature the now all pervasive layer cake effect of the long horizontal emphasis with continuous windows. This beauty is number one on UNESCO's list of modernist buildings to save worldwide.

Although generally characterized by distortion, fragmentation and violent emotion, as the name implies these ideals are subservient to personal expression. For example, the National Museum of the American Indian is all about the singular, individual statement of the architect, Douglas Cardinal.


A ratio is quite simply the relationship to two numbers. Early modernist attempts to rationalize architecture stuck with the simplest ratio, the relationship of a number to itself, 1:1. The one to one ratio generates the square, the grid, the cube, the orthogonal spatial matrix, the epitome of monotony, the metaphorical techno music of architecture: boom, boom, boom, boom...


I have a layman's familiarity with structuralism as a tool of literary analysis and linguistic interpretation. However, I am totally lost in the explanations I've read relating to architecture (although I have a good sense of what type of buildings are produced). I'll let you divine some sort of meaning for yourself:..


A mid-century Japanese movement in architecture that although drawing inspiration from biological processes, employed them in an admittedly artificial, unnatural manner. Concepts included a "sustainable" architecture of factory produced concrete, glass and steel cells or capsules for human containment that could serve as a catalyst for an every expanding megastructure.

Contributed by Patrick Webb